Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Green Paper, or "It's Just Fucking Money"

When I first started at my old firm, they encouraged me to take the Illinois bar in addition to the Missouri bar, largely so that I could work on matters in the judicial hellhole that Madison County, Illinois has become.  Armed with my $50 outlines from barexamoutlines.com and a day of cramming, I made my way up to Chicago to hand-write the single-day, Illinois-only test.

At some point during the festivities, I looked around the room of 100 or so people and came to a profound realization:

We’re all glorified monkeys, writing arcane symbols on processed trees, answering questions that have little-to-no practical application in our day-to-day existences.

The ridiculousness of the entire enterprise sort of hit me all at once.  I started thinking about crazy shit like, “What makes a letter mean something?” and “If dogs had opposable thumbs, would they be doing the same thing?” (yes, that’s how fucked-up I am), but through it all, one overarching question really stood out in my mind.

“How the fuck did my life get here?” In a word, money.

We’re told from an early age that we need a “good” job.  When most people talk about “good” jobs, they aren’t talking about jobs that are particularly fulfilling, or that are the most useful to society.  They’re really only talking about two things: money and security.

I’ve talked about money in a previous post, but I thought I’d expand on it since a lot of people have been asking me about it since I quit my high-paying, secure, yet dreadfully boring job (I'll get to security in a future post).  “How are you going to make money?”  “Aren’t you going to miss the money?” “You aren’t going to be able to do what you want to do because you just won’t have the money!”

Money is just a means to an end.  As many in the “lifestyle design” movement have deduced, there are other ways to get what you want outside of money.  The “Travel Hackers” out there know how to rack up a bunch of frequent flier miles cheaply, and redeem them at discounted rates to get pretty much anywhere in the world.  Also,  consider bartering your services for goods or other services—take out the middle man.  There are tons of possibilities out there to get what you want without going through green pieces of paper that happen to contain pictures of dead patriots. 

Unfortunately, people's views on money tend to color their views on life.  Some think that life is meant to be difficult and laborious.  These people try to accumulate as much green paper as possible while trading at least 5/7 of their time for the other 2/7, plus the outside possibility that they will be able to enjoy 10-20 years doing “whatever they want” (or at least what they still can do) on the back end. 

Another group of people think that life just is: they go through the same song-and-dance as the group above, enjoying their time off but secretly wishing that there was something more to life.  They get “okay” jobs that give them enough green paper to be content, and spend their weekends contently enough.  Maybe they start a family, in the hopes that their offspring will discover the secret to life that breaks this cycle, and makes them truly happy.

Others just blindly accumulate green paper at all costs, thinking that by getting as much as possible as quickly as possible, they will be able to “opt out” of the lives above more quickly, and have more time to enjoy whatever they want to do.  Some people are able to do this and maintain their perspective on life so that they are able to get in, get out, and never look back.  This is certainly laudable.  I have a number of friends who are planning to follow this path of semi-delayed gratification, with fine results (so far).  They enjoy what they’re doing enough to be “content,” and are saving for their next move.

But others that were far more altruistic going in get caught in the trap: after all, none other than Monty Burns once remarked, “I’d give it all up for just a little bit more.”  Maybe they want a bigger house, or for their kids to go to better schools.  Maybe they buy nice things for their families in the hope that these things will make up for all of the late nights and weekends at the office.  Regardless of the cause, these people just chase the green paper without any idea what they’re going to use it for, or the faint hope that they’ll get to enjoy it someday. 

Then fear and doubt creeps in.  “What if it’s not enough?”  “We’ve become accustomed to a certain lifestyle—what if something catastrophic happens?”  These people continue to toil and hoard well beyond the point where they could be enjoying their lives, hoping that at some point the pile will be “big enough.”  The cycle continues—bigger house, again.  Nicer car, again.  Lifestyle inflation makes it very difficult to define what exactly is “enough.”  That’s why the road to “more, more, more,” is such a dangerous path.  Some can navigate it well, others can’t.

The final group of people recognize that green paper is just green paper.  It’s essentially Monopoly money, with countless ways to make money that people haven’t thought about for even half a second.  They recognize that working for someone else isn’t necessarily the path they want to follow.  Others still decide that they’d rather let someone else worry about actually “running the business,” so they negotiate part-time arrangements with employers or set firm boundaries between work and life so that they have time to do what they want.  Still others, the “Free Agents” as defined by Daniel Pink, focus on building transferrable skills that can be taken with them from project-to-project, with as much or as little time between projects as they possibly could want.  In short, this group of people gets it because they are living the lives that they want.  Sure, making money is great, and a lot of them make a lot more green paper than others because they recognize the nature of the game on a very fundamental level, but at the end of the day, they know what’s truly important in life: family, friends, experiences, love, happiness.  Green pieces of paper certainly aren’t, especially when those green pieces of paper might be worthless compared to tan or blue pieces of paper down the road, but that’s a column for another day.

Prioritize, live the life you want to live, and find a way to get enough green paper to make it happen.

Think I’m oversimplifying?  Think I’ll “come around” somewhere down the road?  Leave something in the comments.

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and recovering attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. You can e-mail him at djssuperblog@gmail.com.  Follow him on twitter @djgelner.  Friend him on facebook here.

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